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Ultimate Guide to Winter Photography

Ultimate Guide to Winter Photography

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Ultimate Guide to Winter Photography

Sometimes, it will be hard to resist. Other times, you’ll find yourself wondering who made you do it or why you are doing it. You could be freezing to death in a harsh and unwelcoming environment, whether that be 3 minutes from your home or three continents away. You might even think, "that's enough, I quit". Then as if by magic, you'll find yourself out there again in that same cold environment, practicing winter photography.



Winter is definitely the most challenging season for photographers. This is because it involves fighting the elements during every shoot. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding times for photography, especially if you manage to achieve the shot that you are after. Having suffered through the winter conditions, you'll end up being prouder and more satisfied with your images. Don’t even get me started about the magical, enchanting atmospheres that you can find out there in winter! 

In this article we’ll try to cover all the most important things that you should know about winter photography, including the basics like camera and gear to more creative aspects, such as winter photography ideas. I'll also give you some special tips about how you can deal with the harsh weather conditions to produce stunning winter photographs.



What You Need for Winter Photography

A good way to test your equipment is to go shooting outside during the winter season. While winter doesn't just mean snowstorms and freezing temperatures, it can mean that you'll often be cold. Your equipment needs to be able to withstand these conditions. Here is our recommended packing list for what you need to bring with you during a winter photography session.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyKnowing what you need will help you to be prepared for winter photography. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Camera

If you have a weather-sealed camera, then it's likely that it will work even in the most difficult of conditions. The only thing you'll need to take into account is to keep it as dry as you can in order to avoid water damage. If it's snowing, try using a cloth to prevent water from getting inside the body. Alternatively, if it's raining, try using a rain cover or putting a nylon bag around your camera. Keep in mind that rain will get inside your camera more easily than snow.

Another thing to watch out for when photographing during winter is condensation. Whenever you move from an indoor environment to the outdoors, be sure to keep your camera stowed away in your backpack. This will reduce the risk of condensation occurring by allowing your camera to acclimatise. If you take it out of your bag before it has acclimatised, then the humidity may cause condensation to form, which will no doubt ruin your shoot.

Aside from weather-sealing and preventing condensation, it's also important to bring along several spare batteries during a winter shoot. Batteries tend to die really quickly when it's cold, so be sure to always have a spare battery with you if you want to shoot for a long time. Keep the spare ones in your pockets or in other warm places, otherwise they’ll lose their charge before you even place them inside your camera!



Lenses

If you have weather-sealed lenses for your camera, then chances are that they will also perform well in the coldest and harshest of environments. All you'll need to do is to check that water is not getting inside them. Again, be sure to keep them stored with your camera for a certain time after you move in or out of warm places, so that they can acclimatise and condensation won’t form.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyBe sure to choose weather-sealed cameras and lenses for winter photography. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

Just be sure to continually check the front element of your lens, as it may get droplets of water on it. My suggestion is to always have a cloth handy in your pocket to clean it easily between shots. It takes a few seconds to do and you won't be disappointed later on when you view your photos on a computer. 



Filters

It's not difficult to use filters in cold winter conditions, though you should treat the filter just as you would the front element of your lens. The bigger the filter, the more attention you will need to pay to it, since it will catch more raindrops and snowflakes. A cloth will help you to keep your filters dry and clean, so be sure to always have at least one cloth with you!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyFilters can help you to balance the exposure of your images. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Clothing

If your camera or lenses don't suffer the cold, it means that you won’t suffer either, right?

Actually, it’s the opposite! During winter, the hardest challenge is staying outside for a decent time in freezing temperatures, without getting too cold and packing up to go back indoors. A common saying goes that, "there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing," which couldn’t be more true. With the right clothes, you won’t fear any kind of weather conditions.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyWhat you wear will determine how long you can stay outside for during winter photography. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

The dress code for winter shoots is layers and I don't mean the Photoshop kind. Be prepared for winter photography by wearing as many layers as you need.

Have a think before you go out about how much time you'll be spending standing still and how much time you'll spend moving around. If you have to wait a lot in the cold without moving, then you should wear warmer clothing, whereas if you'll be hiking then you'd be better off wearing lighter layers. There's nothing worse than getting sweaty in your clothing if it's too warm because it'll inevitably begin to freeze once your body gets back to a normal temperature.

As such, when purchasing winter clothing for photography, look for breathable materials that will wick the moisture away from your skin. Your outer layer should be waterproof and heavy to protect you from rain and wind.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyYou don't want to be out there in this without adequate clothing. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Best Settings for Winter Photography

There are some settings that work better for winter scenes than others, while you'll also have parameters that will be the same as they are for photography during other seasons. Here are the best settings that will allow you to capture that particular winter mood.

Manual Mode

Exposure is a tricky thing to get right during winter; snow generally tends to mislead your camera's automatic exposure meter, resulting in completely white or overly bright scenes. As such, my first recommendation is to switch your camera to manual mode.

Shooting in manual mode will give you complete control of the situation, so that you can decide what exposure is best for the scene.

Light Metering

The best way to light meter in winter or snowy conditions is to make a couple of test shots. You can then exposure compensate from there to achieve a balanced exposure. To correct the exposure, simply compensate by setting +/-⅓ stop (or more).



Bracketing

A popular technique to use for winter photography is bracketing. This means that you take multiple shots with different exposures in order to achieve the full dynamic range of the scene.

The reason why this technique is useful for shooting in winter is simple: The white colour of the snow confuses your camera's automatic exposure meter, meaning that you may have a hard time preventing clipping in the highlights whilst maintaining details in the shadows. By taking several bracketed shots, it'll be easier to end up with a well-detailed final image.



Histogram

The general rule when shooting winter scenes is the same that applies throughout the whole year: “expose to the right”.

What does this mean? Basically, by exposing to the right, you’ll concentrate all the details of the image (in an ideal shot) in the upper-midtones or highlights of the frame, all whilst keeping some space to the left side of the histogram, which is where the shadows are.

If you have clipping in the highlights, then you won’t be able to recover the detail in post-production. We also tend to “expose to the right” because shadows can be recovered with RAW developing software much more easily than the highlights!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyCheck your histogram to make sure that you haven't overexposed in the highlights (the snow!). Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

White Balance

Even though the white balance can easily be corrected with any post-processing software, it’s nice to get it right from the very beginning. The auto white balance function of your camera may be inaccurate if there is a strong colour dominant within the frame, such as when shooting snowy scenes at sunset. In this case, your pictures may end up looking very red throughout the frame.

While I can't give you a magical kelvin number to set your white balance for all types of winter photography, I can tell you that if your camera has "Incandescent" or "Fluorescent" white balance mode, then you should use those. These settings attempt to remove the yellow and warm hues in general. Therefore, if your snowy shots are too red, try these settings and see what happens. On the other hand, if your images are too blue, then try using "Cloudy" or "Shade" white balance modes, which aim to eliminate cold colour casts.



Common Problems with Shooting in Winter

You should know by now that winter photography is equally beautiful and complicated. 

There are two ways though to learn how to capture great winter photos. The first one is the hard way (like I did), which basically means going out and taking photos, all whilst encountering an incredible load of hassles along the way. You'll then likely have to spend a lot of time learning how to fix your mistakes. The second way is to read this guide, in which I’ll tell you exactly what you should do and how to behave if you encounter some of the most common problems associated with winter photography.

Autofocusing

This is one of the main problems that you will likely encounter when shooting in cold, white-out environments. The lack of contrast caused by snow will mean that your camera will have a difficult time finding the right focus.

If this happens to you, then there are two ways to avoid taking blurry shots:

  1. Manual Focus: This will give you complete control over the focus of your camera or lens. Be sure to use the Live View mode and zoom in on your camera display to 100%. This way, you'll be sure that you’re getting the best possible focus

  2. Manually Choose a Focus Point: Set your focus point where there is a little bit of contrast. For example, if you are shooting a snowy landscape with mountains in the background, try to select the point where the mountains are touching the sky, since there should be some contrast there. If you are shooting a portrait, select the focus point closest to your subject's eyes. If you manage to find a spot in the frame where there is contrast, then you shouldn't have any focusing issues. 



Cold Weather and Batteries

I've already mentioned this but remember to always bring along some spare batteries during a winter shoot. Keep them in a warm place, such as the inner pockets of your jacket. 

During my winter photo trips, I always bring along 7 spare batteries. This might be overkill for you, though you should have at least 3 batteries on-hand for a multi-day trip. A couple of spare batteries is only enough for a day trip, depending on how much you shoot. 

It’s hard to understand how fast they die out there in the cold when you have never experienced it.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyCold weather can make your batteries drain faster, especially during longer exposures. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Moisture and Condensation

The third and last of the most common problems of winter photography is condensation inside your camera and/or your lenses. How does the moisture get inside?

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyCondensation can occur at the worst times. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

When you go from a warm place to a cold one (or vice versa), the temperature drop or rise creates moisture. This is an incredibly simplified version of what is actually happening. I’ll leave the rest up to the physicists. Basically though, when this occurs, you'll find annoying water droplets all over the front element of your lens or even worse, on the inside or inner elements.

While there isn't a magic solution which will fix this issue completely, we can mitigate the effects of condensation by making the temperature drop or rise “smoother” for your camera gear. To do this, simply keep your equipment in your bag for some time after you move from a warm environment to a much colder one and vice versa.

If you let your gear acclimatise to the new temperature, you won’t have to deal with moisture problems! 



Winter Photography Ideas

Now that we've gone over the technical side of things, it’s time to think about some cool and original ideas for making beautiful images in white-out conditions! Here's a list of the various photography genres and ideas that you can apply during the winter season. You can even try some of these at home or in your garden, without travelling a hundred miles around the globe! 

Portraits

Okay, let me start by saying that I’m not a portrait photographer. Actually, I’m not even a portrait guy at all, to be honest. When it comes to winter portraits though, I have to change my mind! 

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyWinter portraits have a certain charm. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

The pictures that you can capture by using the right model in a wintery atmosphere are just unbelievable. In the last few years, it has been a trend on social networks to go out during overcast days with a model dressed in a heavy woollen sweater. You can then post-process in such a fashion to convey the mood of being outside in the snow, simply by keeping the contrasts and the saturation low.



Christmas

I mean, did you really think I wouldn’t mention Christmas photos in this article?! 

I know that many wintery scenes may be very popular and you are probably bored of seeing those everyday on the web but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get away with some original Christmas shots! 

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyChristmas in winter. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

Christmas in winter is the best time of the year to try some shots that utilise the bokeh effect of your lenses. To create bokeh, use the widest aperture and play around with Christmas lights to add colours to your image. You can even get creative by light painting and maybe including some festive food in your shots!



Freezing Soap Bubbles

Well, this has got to be one of my favourite winter photography ideas. I just love watching soap bubbles freeze! 

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyFrozen soap bubble. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

The only condition that this type of photography requires is the cold. In order for the bubbles to start freezing, they must be placed at a temperature of -10 degrees Celsius (at least!). As such, you’ll need to get outside in a very cold environment to shoot these freezing bubbles. Be sure to bring some warm clothes with you! 

Architecture and Nature

Even though landscapes and cityscapes can be beautiful throughout the whole year, they acquire a very particular atmosphere during winter.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyNew York in winter. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

Always check the weather forecasts and the webcams (if possible) to see the snow conditions and to have an idea about how the location will look at that particular moment when snow begins to fall. You can even head out in the days after a heavy snowfall, when there is still snow all over the trees and buildings. This is the best time to capture winter landscapes and cityscapes!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyMountains look beautiful during winter. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Small Toys and Snow

Have you ever tried to use small toys as the subject of your photos? The results you can achieve are incredible to say the least.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyToys in the snow. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

You can have Lego characters fighting, kissing, or even walking in the snow. In fact, you can even use trucks or toy cars to help you tell a story. If you manage to scale your compositions properly, then it will be hard to tell if they're real or just toys!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyThe latest Star Wars movie in the snow. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

Macro Pictures of Frost

Nature is the greatest artist. I think we can all agree on that. A perfect way to show nature’s magic is by shooting macro pictures of snowflakes, frost or pieces of ice.

 

For these types of photos, you’ll need a macro lens and/or some macro extension tubes. These will allow you to get very close to your subject, so that you can capture all the details of the ice or the snowflake. You'll need a lens with a magnification factor of 1:1 or more.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyGet up close to a snowflake with a macro lens. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.



Pet Photography

Stop right there: a random photo of your neighbour’s cat on Facebook is NOT what I consider pet photography. When I say pet photography, I mean the splendid results that you can achieve by playing with your pets outside and freezing the motion while they catch a ball, a toy or even when they are jumping or running.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographySnow can elevate your pet photography. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

In winter, considering the snowy atmospheres, you can achieve amazing portraits of your pets outside! For these kinds of images, I recommend that you use very fast shutter speeds together with wider apertures. It's also easier to focus on Continuous mode using Autofocus, rather than to do it manually.



6 Tips for Winter Photography

My goal for the last chapter of this article is to give you some valuable tips about winter photography. How can you plan your winter shoots? What are the best times of the day to go out and what conditions should you look for? Keep reading to find out! 

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyWinter isn't a difficult time to shoot! It just requires a lot of patience. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Tip #6.  Plan Your Shoot

No matter what genre of photography you are practicing, planning is always required. It's a crucial part of the process that leads to producing a great picture.

Always study the location and your subject in advance. Consider the variables that you may find when you are shooting and most of all, pre-visualise what the final image should look like. Planning makes sense only if you have something to plan, otherwise it will just be wasted time. 

If you’ll be shooting outside, it's a good idea to check the weather forecast so you can figure out when the best time will be to visit the location.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyA wolf in winter. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.



Tip #5.  Capture the Golden Hours in Winter

The golden hours are one of my favourite things about winter. I've always been more of a sunset guy than a sunrise one but I have to admit that watching the first lights of the day appear is something that makes me wake up at impossible hours again and again. Winter makes getting up for sunrises less painful!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyGolden hour is a beautiful time for winter photography. Photo by: 'Pixabay'.

During the winter season, sunrise is generally at a way more reasonable hour compared to the rest of the year, which allows you to sleep in a little. You’ll still have to deal with the fresh breeze typical of winter mornings but it’s not something that a warm tea or a cup of coffee won’t be able to fix. The sunset hour is great too, since it generally happens in the late afternoon, so you’ll be able to get home just in time for dinner.



Tip #4.  Shoot in Overcast Weather

While an overcast day can easily ruin your shooting plans during other seasons, winter means that the low clouds and colourless skies can impart a different atmosphere. As a matter of fact, the pristine snowy scenes typical of winter fit the winter mood perfectly. For some types of shots, it’s even better to shoot on an overcast day rather than sunny one.

 

Check out the shot below: I wouldn’t have been able to make it if the weather was sunny. Luckily, I was there on a moody, foggy day and the atmosphere was just surreal! My tip here is to always go out and shoot, even if the conditions aren’t promising!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyThis image would look completely different in spring or summer. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Tip #3.  Photograph the Wildlife

Shooting wildlife in winter is equally rewarding and painful. It involves long waiting times, many attempts and probably a few failures. In winter, you’ll have to deal with these factors PLUS the cold, harsh conditions typical of the season. 

On the bright side, when you achieve the shot you've been wanting all this time, then suffering through the cold will have been worth it!

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyThere is still a lot of wildlife about during the winter season. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Tip #2.  Capture the Falling Snow

Including snowflakes in your photos will give them a more wintery look. There are two main ways that you can capture the falling snow.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyFalling snow makes for enchanting images. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

  1. Use a Flash: With the help of a flash, the snowflakes will be lit up and will consequently be way more visible in your frame. In the shot above for example, I used a flash. The main subject (the red houses) wasn’t far from me and was clearly visible even in the snowstorm. 

  • Use a Shutter Speed Between 1/30 sec and 1/125 sec: If the snowfall is strong or your subjects aren’t clearly visible, try not to use a flash and just find the right shutter speed to capture the falling snowflakes. In the shot below, it was snowing heavily so I opted not to use a flash and just dialled in an exposure time of 1/60 sec. I didn't have a clear, visible subject and the use of a flash would have created just more confusion in a photo which was already quite hard to “read”. 

The main difference between the use of a flash or just the selection of the right shutter speed is the amount of snow which is falling at that moment and the visibility of your subjects! 

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyThere's not a lot to focus on in this scene so it's all about the snow. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Tip #1.  Maintain the Coolness in Post Processing

Your workflow for editing winter pictures will mostly be the same as for photos taken during other seasons. Simply apply all of your normal adjustments, such as curves, colour balance, saturation and regulations on highlights and shadows. The only thing you'll really need to pay extra attention to is the colour temperature. Many cameras read the scene as warmer than it actually is and set the white balance accordingly. To maintain the pristine, cold look typical of the winter season, try lowering the temperature a bit towards the cooler tones, so that you can achieve the look you are looking for.

Ultimate Guide to Winter PhotographyKeep the white balance true to the feeling of winter. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.



Conclusion

Now that we've arrived at end of this article, I can tell you my little secret: Winter for me is by far the best season of the year to take pictures. There are generally fewer people around in almost every place on Earth, so you can shoot in relative peace at locations that would otherwise be super crowded. In addition, the days are shorter, meaning that you won’t have to stay out late or go out really early in the morning.

I hope that the suggestions and ideas that I've given you in this article will help you to take some wonderful shots of the coldest season of the year. There’s nothing better than observing the snow falling or finding yourself in an icy forest, maybe near a partially frozen lake or river. Winter photography is truly enchanting, particularly due to the winter atmospheres that it can bring. Just make sure that you're prepared before you go out, so you can stay out for hours shooting!


About the author:  Leonardo Papèra is a landscape photographer based in Italy. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Instagram.


Would you like to improve your skills in-field and on-location? Join us on a winter photography workshop in Iceland! Experience the Land of Fire and Ice, swathed in the enchanting beauty of snow.